Jewish Women International (JWI) was born in 1897 as Ruth Lodge No. 1, the Daughters of Judah, B’nai B’rith’s first auxiliary, just as 19th century women were beginning to emerge from the home and into the public sphere. Over the decades, JWI has grown and evolved, as have Jewish women, into a strong, independent and influential force making significant contributions to contemporary life and committed to the pursuit of tikkun olam—repairing the world—locally, nationally and internationally.
B'nai B'rith Women began as Jewish women coming together for friendship, community involvement, and to build a Jewish presence in the broader community.
By 1909, in San Francisco, San Francisco No. 1, the first permanent group, is founded with the aim of “promoting sociability among [B’nai B’rith] Lodge members and their families,” but members soon turn their attention outward to see how their volunteer activities could help improve the community around them.
In the years before World War I, B’nai B’rith women’s auxiliaries take root across the United States with a busy agenda of Jewish cultural activities, philanthropy and community service for women, children and families.
With the advent of World War I, members of these groups, like many other American women, readily do their patriotic duty by rolling bandages, nursing in military hospitals, and providing hospitality to the troops.
1920s & ‘30s
The vote for women is won, but women’s influence still rests in the collective clout of voluntary organizations. Despite being denied official recognition by B’nai B’rith, the women’s auxiliaries begin to take a stand on issues they care about.
In 1927, their interest in serving young girls inspires the creation of junior auxiliaries that come to be known as B’nai B’rith Girls.
The women’s groups start their own fund for the relief of Jews in Europe, an effort that gains momentum as Nazi persecution grows and the threat of war looms.
By 1940, the group drops the term auxiliary in favor of chapters, organizes the Women’s Supreme Council as its national coordinating body and elects its first national president, Judge Lenore Underwood Mills of San Francisco. Non-voting representation on B’nai B’rith bodies is finally attained.
In this era of women’s emancipation, when women were working alongside men in armament factories, the women’s group, spurred on by the dynamic Anita Perlman, is able to achieve its dream—the recognition of B’nai B’rith Girls as a national organization on par with Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA), the B’nai B’rith boys’ group.
With the start of World War II, members work diligently for the war effort, selling bonds, knitting and sewing, and rolling bandages. The women serve as volunteers at train depots serving refreshments to members of the Armed Services on the move.
The young survivors of the Holocaust who arrive in Palestine suffering from the emotional effects of their traumatic wartime experiences find care and opportunity to heal at the Children’s Home in Jerusalem, a facility for which BBW assumes full responsibility for in the late 1940s. This commitment has continued unabated in the six decades since with chapters raising many millions of dollars to support the facility, now supporting at-risk boys and girls in what is now known as the Residential Treatment Center (RTC).
By the early 1950s, the organization has truly come into its own as a vibrant organization with its own agenda. The organization purchases land and builds a new facility for the Children’s Home.
In 1951, its own national newspaper, Women’s World, is born. In 1953, for the first time, women delegates vote at the B’nai B’rith convention. By 1957, the women’s group officially takes the name, B’nai B’rith Women (BBW).
With the issue of the acceptance of minority groups becoming part of the national dialogue, BBW, in cooperation with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), introduces the popular Dolls for Democracy program, which mobilizes volunteers to teach tolerance to children in schools across the country.
BBW answers President John Kennedy’s call for a “new frontier” by speaking out for civil rights, working to combat illiteracy and poverty and advocating on behalf of housing for senior citizens.
Through Operation Stork, a first-of-its-kind program that BBW undertook with the March of Dimes, members work to educate lower income women about the importance of prenatal care.
BBW funds the construction of a major new addition at the Children’s Home in Jerusalem.
Jewish women such as Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug lead the way in the women’s movement and BBW answers their challenge. In the late 1960s, and continuing into the ‘70s and ‘80s, the organization’s focus shifts toward activism. In 1972, BBW becomes the first Jewish organization to back the Equal Rights Amendment and in 1968, five years before Roe v. Wade, BBW called for laws that would protect women from having to seek often life-threatening illegal abortions, a right that the organization has reaffirmed multiple times through the years.
BBW takes stands on such issues as pay equity, family and medical leave, teen pregnancy, women’s and infants’ health care, and displaced homemakers.
BBW speaks out on behalf of the embattled Jewish community of the Soviet Union, serving as a convener for the Women’s Plea for Soviet Jewry, a coalition of women’s organizations working to build awareness about the plight of imprisoned Jewish activists in the U.S.S.R. and to encourage authorities to allow Soviet Jews to immigrate.
In July 1988, a 41-year-old BBW member in Gaithersburg, Md., is shot by her estranged husband in the parking lot of her place of employment. This shocking murder spurs the organization to embark on a campaign to break the silence about domestic abuse in the Jewish community.
BBW funds the building of a state-of-the-art dormitory at the Residential Treatment Center in Jerusalem.
BBW launches “Image of the Jewish Woman: Myth or Reality,” the first national program to challenge the J.A.P. and other stereotypes of Jewish women.
“The Invisible Thread,” a photo exhibit that explores the distinctive and varied personalities of Jewish American women and the common threads that bind them, traverses the country under the sponsorship of BBW, in cooperation with the ADL.
By the late 1980s, BBW’s growth as an organization devoted to its own agenda of programs and concerns set the stage for a reevaluation of the organization’s historic relationship with B’nai B’rith.
In 1990, BBW and B’nai B’rith reach a formal agreement that clarifies the nature of the relationship between the two organizations, recognizing BBW as an independent organization, affiliated with B’nai B’rith.
In 1995, BBW declares its full independence by changing its name to Jewish Women International (JWI).
In keeping with its new, independent identity, JWI founds Jewish Woman, its award-winning national magazine.
Thousands participate in a JWI study of attitudes about interfaith marriage. Study findings lead JWI to commission, Mingled Roots, a book designed to help Jewish grandparents pass on their Jewish heritage to grandchildren from interfaith marriage.
JWI launches the Prejudice Awareness Summit, a program that reaches thousands of middle school students in cities throughout the U.S.
Domestic abuse educational and awareness activities flourish in communities across the U.S.
2000 & Beyond
In 2001, JWI hosts its first Women to Watch gala luncheon and awards ceremony, celebrating 10 extraordinary Jewish women and featuring them in Jewish Woman magazine. Women to Watch has become JWI’s signature event and most prolific fundraiser.
Beginning in 2003, JWI organizes three bi-annual International Conferences on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community to bring the community together for training and planning.
Rabbis and cantors from every denomination participate in the JWI-coordinated National Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse to bring needed resources to clergy and congregations.
JWI creates the National Alliance Against Domestic Abuse, which offers monthly webinars tor hundreds of professionals across a wide range of organizations to educate them about current issues in the field of domestic abuse.
When Push Comes to Shove, It’s No Longer Love! – JWI’s toolkit and documentary film designed to educate older teens and young adults about healthy relationships – debuts in 2006. It is followed by a new series on healthy relationships aimed at younger teens for use in a variety of educational settings.
The strong local commitment of JWI members and supporters spurs the success of the organization’s National Library Initiative, which is working to establish 100 children’s libraries in battered women’s shelters across the U.S.
JWI creates Life$avings®: Financial Literacy for Young Women, a series of workshops to empower teen girls, college students and young professionals. The program teaches them to start managing their money early in their careers to become self-sufficient and responsible Jewish adults.
In early 2008, JWI convenes the Interfaith Domestic Violence Coalition. Current membership includes more than 35 organizations, representing a multitude of denominations and millions of congregants nationwide.
In 2009, a new facility for JWI’s Children’s Home in Israel opens, bringing the renowned residential treatment facility from Bayit Vagan, its home for more than six decades, to a beautiful, peaceful setting in Abu Gosh.
JWI expands its advocacy network to involve hundreds of committed activists working on issues of violence prevention, reproductive choice, women’s health, and economic security.
In 2012, JWI laid the groundwork for a new Young Leadership Initiative to create a network of young, professional Jewish women.
In 2013, JWI held its inaugural Young Women’s Leadership Conference, bringing together 150 young women and current and former Women to Watch honorees and JWI Board members for day of learning and mentoring.
In 2014, SafeSmartDating was piloted at University of Pennsylvania, Purdue University and George Washington University. Created in partnership with Sigma Delta Tau sororities and Zeta Beta Tau fraternities, SafeSmartDating works to change the culture on college campuses in an innovative co-ed workshop.
Sources: Jewish Women in America (Routledge), article on B’nai B’rith Women by Linda Gordon Kuzmack and JWI publications